We are Homo sapiens sapiens. And no, I’m not talking about you and me. I’m talking about me, me and the other 37.2 trillion me’s that make up me. That is, my individual cells.
Imagine a single-celled bacterium. Now imagine a single cell of your body. Compare them. Are they much different? Both are matter in an organized, cellular form; both respond and adapt to their environment; both grow and asexually reproduce; and both use energy to survive—seven of the seven criteria of life. In fact, most evolutionary theories of multicellularity argue m.c. began with the aggregation of multiple single-celled organisms into a larger entity termed a grex (which is an absolutely delightful term.) Hell, some organisms even hover on the border between uni- and multicellularity, which is, well, it doesn’t support my point, it’s just weird and I thought you’d be interested. What I’m hinting at is: every single cell of our body is technically a life-form of its own.
Yeah but what? Individual human cells can and do exist apart (see: Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cell line.) We are biased to see ourselves as a single entity, a single consciousness (partly due to the Gestalt principle of emergence,) but we are in fact trillions of single-celled organisms working in concert to create a huge multi-cellular automaton. And no, those cells are not identical—irradiation, age, decay of genetic material, specialization, location, and more result in enough differentiation between cells that we do have to consider the cells as individuals. Certainly they’re as varied as a few generations of asexually-reproducing bacteria. Perceiving them as such even explains those times your body exists in fundamental disagreement:
Bladder: “We need to pee!”
Eyes: “Ughh, no.”
Limbs: “Second that.”
Brain: “Well, I’m awake now. Do de do de do. Let’s worry about things!”
Eyes: “Go back to bed, brain.”
Bladder: “Don’t listen to those idiots, brain! Concentrate on how ready-to-burst I am. Think of flowing water. Think of pisstastic relief.”
Brain: “Waterfalls, rivers, rain, puddles, this is fun!”
Limbs: “Fine! If it’ll make you shut up.”
Eyes: “Well I’m not opening, go ahead and stub your toe.”
Our body is a bustling city of tiny Homo sapiens sapiens, each working its little specialized biological profession, striving to keep the city humming. And industrious little beings that we are, we have built one marvelous city capable of utterly remarkable feats of brains and brawn.
Actually, more accurately, we are an ocean in miniature. For though we see ourselves as land animals—and we do live on land—in a way, we merely took the salty ocean with us when we clawed our way onto the shore (see: the human body is 65% water.) We are a waterskin filled with the microbial soup of “us.” And, as with any ocean, these soup-sacks are chockablack with other tiny organisms. One study indicates that, within our own body, our cells are outnumbered 10 to 1 by the cells of other organisms (mostly single-celled, but “heyyy there Demodex mites.”) And those little critters, especially the ones in your gut, have an enormous impact on your life.
So yeah… I find this delightful, and you should too. Because it means you have never been and will never be alone. The true ‘you’ is the plural form of ‘you.’ So use the royal we. It’s more accurate, and you don’t want to alienate your old friends.
As for how to make sense of the self with this new-found plurality in mind, check out the follow-up, “Culture Part II or: It’s Your Birthday? Celebrate Your Culture, Man.”